Love is all a matter of timing. It's no good meeting the right person too soon or too late. If I'd lived in another time or place, my story might have had a very different ending.Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love was a beautifully filmed, admirably restrained study of two people left behind when their spouses have an affair, two people who discover a possible, and powerful, love between themselves, and deliberately turn away from it. The simple narrative and the care with which it unfolded were impressive, but also difficult to embrace emotionally, because the photography and the soundtrack provided more actual passion than the performances, which was a central part of the tragedy, of course -- two people who should have loved each other, but were unable to do so, stuck in a world of gorgeous colors and lush, romantic music playing over the ubiquitous radios.
2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, though it stands alone just fine, because it picks up with the life of Mr. Chow three years after he asked Mrs. Chan to leave with him for Singapore, and she did not -- it is, essentially, the story of his new life, his life after love.
Where In the Mood for Love was restrained, 2046 is less so -- it is a longer, more baroque movie, one with many more characters and settings and stories. One of the most noticeable differences is the presence of sex: In the Mood for Love was about its characters' refusal to indulge in sex, because they thought they would then be better than their philandering spouses, despite all the gossip that rises up around them anyway. The touch of a hand became a powerful gesture. 2046 has numerous sex scenes, and Mr. Chow has become a king of one-night stands. He has also become cold and cruel; much as we want to like him, particularly if we remember the kind and gentle man he was in the first film, our sympathies are directed more toward the women in the film, the women he lets love him, then walks away from, as if pathologically determined to repeat the loss he suffered, but this time to reserve for himself the role of the lover who refuses, the one who makes the decision, the one in control. Again and again characters in 2046 ask, "Will you leave with me?" Again and again, the answer is the same.
The title of 2046 comes from a few things. It is the number of the hotel room where, in In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chun would meet to work on the martial-arts novel they were writing. It is the number of another hotel room in 2046, one that has multiple women who live in it, all of them doomed. It is the title of a novel Mr. Chow writes about a future world where people go to a "room number 2046" in search of lost memories, a room where, it is said, nothing ever changes. It is also one year before Hong Kong loses the guarantee of the Basic Law.
Everything about 2046 is remarkable, but I was particularly impressed by Ziyi Zhang's performance -- every moment she has on screen is masterful, every glance and gesture, so often simple and small and still, yet conveying an immense range of emotion and experience. Tony Leung's performance as Mr. Chow is just as good as his earlier performance in In the Mood for Love, but he is in many ways even more of a blank than he was before -- so hollowed out that we know him more through the empty hole he represents in comparison to the richness of the other characterizations than through any action of his own.
Another film would try to answer more questions, would try to show more of what had happened in the years between the two films to turn Mr. Chow into the person he becomes in 2046, but Wong is a director who respects the intelligence of his audience. We get it. We feel it. We know what's going on, even if, much of the time, we don't know exactly why. By the end, any why's left hanging in the air are not important; any attentive viewer will have pieced together the important moments. The colors tell us, the scenes that echo scenes from the earlier film, the music, the repetitions, all of which create a sensual environment where the audience can feel its way toward understanding.
Some reviewers have complained that 2046 is a lesser movie than In the Mood for Love because it is messier, bigger, more confusing, more ragged. To me it's the difference between the spareness of Racine's plays against the sprawl of Shakespeare's, not a matter of one being better than the other, but of two different approaches toward representing the world. The films work beautifully together, but just as I'll take Shakespeare over Racine any day, I enjoyed the openness of 2046 even more than I enjoyed the austere structure of In the Mood for Love. I'm glad we have both, but 2046 is the one I expect I will watch again and again.